Solar array ordinance causing a bit of a headache

Thu, 02/27/2020 - 8:00pm

About a year ago, an application for a solar array that was before the Planning Board was not approved, in part, according to island resident Chris Warfel, because the town’s Zoning Board and Planning Board had different interpretations of the ordinance that regulates solar panel installations.

In the year since that application was denied, Warfel, who owns a solar installation company, Entech Engineering, has been regularly appearing before the Planning Board to try to disentangle the language.

Recently, however, Warfel, citing “brain exhaustion” on everyone’s part, sent a letter to the Planning Board, the town’s Land Use office, and Town Planner Alison Ring asking that the matter go to a public hearing and be resolved, one way or the other.

“I appreciate all the time that you have put into modifying the solar ordinances. I feel though, we have hit an impasse over the option of placing a ground-mounted solar project within the set-back limits for unusual cases, or more correctly, for cases that are removed from main roads,” Warfel wrote. “If we cannot work out a solution to this, then I think that perhaps we need to vote on what you would like to adopt and bring it to a public hearing via the Town Council. I suggest this as I feel this issue is taking much of your time, and I think just about everyone is brain exhausted. Other communities have to contend with solar projects that we have not even broached, such as community solar.”

Community solar projects are essentially arrays that service more than one house or building.

“Perhaps we can discuss how to wind this down and get the Town Council's input, and the public at large. The public is not attending these meetings and I think very few people are aware of the complexities of what we are trying to achieve,” Warfel wrote.

There is a group on the island promoting solar energy called the Solar Initiative, but island resident Tony Pappas, who is spearheading the effort, said any project initiated by that group will be roof-mounted, so any change to the ground-mounted ordinance will have minimal impact on those installations. The Solar Initiative was jumpstarted by an individual who has made a substantial donation to install solar arrays.

The language that sets the performance standards for solar arrays comes under sections 425 and 517 of the Town of New Shoreham’s zoning ordinances.

Copies of the ordinances forwarded to The Block Island Times by Warfel show a document that has undergone numerous edits, revisions, and deletions over time.

“This section is intended to provide for and encourage the installation of solar energy systems on Block Island. Such systems shall include both solar thermal, to heat water or air, and photovoltaic systems to create electricity. Photovoltaic systems may either provide power to the consumer on site, or be connected to the electrical production and distribution with credit given by the utility for excess power produced.”

The latter references what is commonly called net-metering, wherein the consumer can sell back any excess energy their alternative energy systems produce.

Language Warfel wanted to include in the ordinance as an alternative purpose in that section states, “The purpose of this section is to promote the safe, effective and efficient use of solar energy systems that minimize impacts on scenic, natural, cultural resources, increase resiliency, reduce the use and reliance on fossil fuels and provide clean, domestically-sourced alternatives to our existing energy supply.”

The thorniest issue for the parties involved had to do with setback requirements; that is, how far back from the road the solar arrays should be placed.

Language in the existing ordinance states: “If feasible, such panels shall be mounted so as not to be visible from adjoining roadways or neighboring properties.”

Warfel called that language “problematic,” stating in his edits to the document “the construct is that solar electric systems are visually offensive and I have learned from 30 years in this work that it really is in the eye of the beholder. I think ‘feasible’ is also problematic in that what one person may deem feasible may be infeasible by another.”

Warfel suggested new language: “Solar arrays are to be installed in a manner that provides symmetry, reduce the amount of conductor runs, and provide an overall installation that efficiently uses the space of the roof or ground to the extent that the owner can provide.”

According to Planning Board Chair Margie Comings, the ordinances as currently written have posed no major problems and have not impacted any recent solar array projects, “but they need to be tweaked. They’re a little wordy and we tried to close as many loopholes as we can.” She said that Town Planner Alison Ring will have “one more go-round” on the edits, and will compare the town’s revised ordinances with what other municipalities and the state have on their books. “We’re making progress,” said Comings, who added that Ring will come back “with a final draft next month.”

As for holding a public hearing on the proposed changes, Comings said “there have been so few people at our hearings, it should go for public comment.”

According to section 425 of the zoning ordinance, “Solar energy systems are considered accessory uses, and are permitted in all zoning districts.”